The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Going outside is our only escape. But now that’s scary, too.

Washingtonians try to keep social distance on a bustling sidewalk. (Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images)

The coronavirus pandemic has obliterated the rhythms of the American workday. And yet, somehow, rush hour has survived.

It happens on city sidewalks and suburban trails, especially on sunny days, beginning around 5 p.m., when the cooped-up folks working from home can finally shut their laptops and engage in their sole opportunity for outdoor exercise. The joggers, the walkers, the kids on bikes: They’re all on the sidewalk, and — oh, no — they’re headed directly toward you.

“I’ll immediately cross the street,” says Pallavi Kumar, 47, in D.C.

“I find myself holding my breath as I walk past anyone,” says Elliot Kort, 32, in Chicago. “I have no idea if that does anything.”

Go for a walk, they said. It will make you feel better, they said. Except, for some people, seeing so many other people — some walking, some running, all exhaling — has the opposite effect.

Do any of them have the virus? Do ALL of them have the virus?

(Video: Open Style Lab)

Going outside, the one thing that was supposed to be calming and relatively safe during a global pandemic that has forced everyone indoors, has become as dreadful as all other things that the coronavirus has ruinedlike going grocery shopping, or trying to sleep through the night. These perambulations of the quarantined — some of whom are following the new CDC guidance about wearing face coverings, but many not — are the street parades of our time, creating hard choices for citizens who want to avoid any and all crowds but also want to avoid going stir-crazy in their homes.

Jenny Ferguson walked her dog every day in her Los Angeles neighborhood of Playa del Rey without incident. But after social distancing began — and especially once the gyms closed — she noticed more and more people were out and about, and it started to make her nervous. This week, she was startled by a fellow dog-walking neighbor who, despite the wide sidewalks, made no attempt to keep his distance. So she stepped into the street. Where another person was coming in her direction.

“I realized that I was having trouble breathing. I realized that my chest felt really tight,” she says. A panic attack was incoming. She ducked down a side street, talking to herself and trying to calm down. It was a foreign feeling for such a familiar setting. “I’m in my neighborhood,” Ferguson says. “This is a really lovely, safe neighborhood. I’ve never, ever felt unsafe here before. And suddenly I didn’t feel safe.”

The yoga studios are closed. It’s lights out for Barry’s Bootcamp. So long to SoulCycle. People are walking and running and biking, because what else is there to do? If you want to exercise outside your own yard, that’s pretty much all that many states’ stay-at-home orders legally allow.

Lindsey Viscomi, a 42-year-old marketer from Vienna, Va., first saw the new recreational landscape as an opportunity for her family. “When we first started realizing that we were going to be stuck home all spring, I looked at my husband and said, ‘Oh, I guess we’re going to be doing a lot of hiking,’ ” she says.

But after a few times out on local trails with her husband and children, including the Washington and Old Dominion Trail near her home, she gave up on that notion. “We would go out and see that everyone had the same idea as us,” Viscomi says, “so it was more crowded than ever.” Staying six feet apart from strangers would be challenging, if not impossible.

They drove to an entry point farther down the trail. The parking lot was full. “I knew that we were in trouble,” she says.

They tried anyway, and soon found themselves on less of a soothing hike than a stressful slalom, dodging runners, cyclists and other walkers on the trail. About 10 minutes in, “we had a runner come up right behind us and then weave around very close to us,” close enough that Viscomi could practically feel the woman’s breath, she says. “My husband and I both looked at each other like: Is she nuts? Did she miss the memo?”

So much for escaping to nature. Now, they just walk in their neighborhood. It’s still a little nerve-racking when someone passes, even from six feet away. “I turn my head away from them, in some sort of hope that if they cough at that exact moment they’re passing me that I’ll be safe,” Viscomi says.

Even those who are able to observe and enforce the six-foot rule are left wondering: Is that even enough? If a jogger runs close enough to you that you can smell their deodorant, surely you’ve inhaled some of their breath molecules. Jose Jimenez, a professor of chemistry at the University of Colorado at Boulder who specializes in aerosol science, says social distancing should involve a lot more distance.

We know sneezing and coughing are trouble. But merely breathing is a “well-established aerosol-generating procedure, which is increased by talking or heavier breathing, such as when exercising,” Jimenez told the Denver Post. The professor added that he is trying to maintain a distance of 25 feet from others. Twenty-five!

Tell that to the rush-hour crowd at Rock Creek Park in Washington — where, on a recent warm evening, no fewer than eight people tried to pass one another within a few seconds on a section of the paved path that appeared less than six feet wide. On the outdoor gym equipment below the Taft Bridge, some exercisers made use of the chin-up bar, without gloves, ignoring signs stating that the equipment is closed because of covid-19.

America’s germaphobes were ready for this — and have been for too long

All this running, with nowhere to go. It’s as if we’re trying to outpace our boredom, or our fear. But for Ben Foley, 30, who typically does a six-to-eight-mile run every day in his suburban Denver neighborhood, that runner’s high doesn’t provide the endorphin rush it used to.

“You don’t know who’s practicing social distancing well,” he says. “You don’t know where some of these people continue to go.” So Foley plays it safe: When he sees too many people on his path, he will turn around and cut his run short.

The government has struggled with how much to limit access to open-air attractions. The National Park Service has closed some parks, such as the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Yellowstone, but more than 300 parks remain open, with waived admission fees. Cities have begun to close areas popular with hikers and walkers after seeing big crowds. Chicago closed its Lakefront Trail and the 606, an elevated rail trail. New Yorkers can no longer walk the High Line, and Angelenos can no longer visit the L.A. County beaches.

City residents frustrated with the lack of sidewalk space have called for street closures to better enable social distancing. New York closed four streets to vehicular traffic, and other cities have opened certain roads to pedestrians — or, in the case of D.C., closed them to discourage people from driving to see the cherry blossoms. But some worry that turning roads into pedestrian byways will entice more people to spend time in the great outdoors.

More like the terrifying outdoors. Anxiety about going outside is creating shut-ins among the shut-ins.

“Because I have asthma, I’m very worried about getting this virus,” says Erika Kerekes, 53, of Santa Monica, Calif. “And because I’m very worried about getting this virus, I walk around my neighborhood literally thinking, like: Who exhaled in this spot 10 minutes ago? And are those particles still there? I know the wind is blowing. Who exhaled down the street? Is that blowing in my face?”

The only place that feels safe to her now is her home, which she is trying not to leave unless she absolutely has to.

“I hope it does not make me seriously, clinically agoraphobic,” Kerekes says. “That would be a terrible way to spend the rest of my life.” (It’s not necessarily a precursor, says agoraphobia expert C. Alec Pollard: Fear of catching the coronavirus outdoors is context-dependent and would be considered a problem only if it persists after the virus threat has passed.)

Pandemic anxiety is making us sleepless, forgetful and angry. Here are tips for coping.

Any other year, Suzy Johnson, 55, of Philadelphia would be taking photos of all the blooming trees and enjoying her neighborhood. This year she’s bogged down by the dissonance between the beauty of spring and the ugliness of what’s happening in the world.

So instead she’s just wondering when the runners will pass. There are enough people on the city streets that she has begun to feel nervous about her walks. So she’s found another place to get some exercise, where people aren’t going to come close: an ugly parking lot with a view of a nearby power plant’s smokestacks. It’s rare that she’ll see another soul there.

“Nature would normally bring solace to me,” she says. Now, peace comes from a place too blighted by human invention to draw anyone near.

Alas, not for long. The other day, she realized she would have to find a new parking lot: Signs were posted at the entrance to her usual one, indicating that it would soon become a drive-through testing site for the coronavirus.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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